This story is in loving memory of my Babcia (Grandmother), whose strength, courage, and grace gave me peace. Softly spoken and quiet in nature, she witnessed the atrocities of war, and from these experiences she learnt the wisdom of love. I will love and miss you, rest in peace for your legacy lives on in each of us.
Told by Janina Stefanowicz and Teresa Wojna. Written and translated by Amanda Parkinson.
At 85 years of age Janina Stefanowicz had witnessed the horrors of this world. As a child in Lwow, Poland, during the 1930s she watched the terror of genocide unfold. “I remember the Jewish man next door always walking in the gutter – he would come home with the cuffs of his pants frozen,” she told us. Prejudice and hatred began to grow in Europe, but Janina knew different, and in her early teens she began to see the injustices around her.
“It was my fourteenth birthday when the Germans invaded Poland. They defeated us within weeks. The day the bombs hit our town my best friend Jerzy was running to my house. Around him bombs demolished everything and tanks screamed as they rolled down the streets. Around him chaos was echoing but Jerzy kept running. When he reached our house Papa ushered him to the basement. I just kept looking at him. He was covered in dust. I was scared but even then I knew I loved him.
“Two days later, on the third of September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany. And two weeks later Soviet troops invaded Poland. Over the coming days German and Russian military engulfed the Polish borders in a massive infantry attack – the world was at war again.
“We were scurried underground. My father’s factory was taken over by German control and suddenly we had no income, no business, and no money. It didn’t really matter if you were Jewish or not – just Polish and you were considered second rate. Fortunately I was part of a family with ingrained patriotism and my parents began to actively resist the German and Russian regimes.”
Until this point Janina is strong and stern-faced as she recounts her story. But then a quiet fragility appears, her blue eyes begin to well. A soft hand holds mine. She says: ‘This is very hard.’ She takes a deep breath and continues.
“For many years my family fled German arrest. Horrible things would happen to people I loved. We were fighting for everyone: for Poland, for our freedom, and for our lives. But people would just not come home. Sometimes we would find them, other times they just disappeared. Jerzy’s family and I were living close by, we would see each other often but he was an active leader in our towns Armia Krajowa (“AK” – the Home Underground Army). I worried for him, he was fighting a vicious enemy.
“In 1941 Jerzy and I started dating. I had loved him for many years. His courage and fierce loyalty often gave me strength. Exceptionally intelligent and able to speak fluent German, he started spying on the Nazis. When Lwow came under German control he would ignore curfew, and dressed in a stolen Nazi rank uniform he would infiltrate enemy meetings. I remember one day the Gestapo coming to our door. Jerzy hid me in the bedroom, put on the uniform and answered the door with a smile. The solider astounded quickly apologised for intruding and – ‘Heil-Hitler!’ – saluted him. Jerzy waved him goodbye before closing the door and laughing. Despite the malicious enemy we fought we never lost ourselves. Instead of retaliating with force Jerzy would often antagonise the Nazis, sending them in the wrong direction when they would be chasing someone, impersonating them, interrupting their meetings. His sense of humour made light of deathly situations, and for this I loved him too.
“By 1942 we all had to obtain workers passes so the Germans wouldn’t send us to the camps. I worked at a jewellery shop to earn money. We would use the money to develop photos of the Nazis’ movements. A number of us were meticulous at keeping records. Too many people were just disappearing. I also started teaching the children Polish and letting them hear the truth about our country.
“In 1944 Jerzy proposed to me. We were married that year. He had been my strength. At 20 years old we were living in a cruel world but our love was perfect. When the war finally ended in 1945, I found out I was pregnant.
“Polish tradition is to celebrate Christmas Eve. Everyone comes together to give gifts, eat and celebrate the joys of family. But on December 24th 1945 I was given the greatest gift – my first daughter Teresa. She made us a family. Seven years later I was blessed again with another little girl, Danuta. Poland was still a very vulnerable place, as we moved from a German regime to the communist era, Stalin’s oppression of us was equally cruel.
“Trying to keep our girls safe we moved to Krakow, but Jerzy never recovered from the horror of war. A brilliant father and husband, his loyalty never faltered. In 1982, at age 57, I lost my husband, my soul mate. Jerzy had a servere heart attack while setting a candle lit dinner for us. After almost 40 years of marriage he was still the love of my life. I always believed his heart just couldn’t cope with the pain of this world. For weeks I went and sat by his grave, talking to him, wishing he would not have left me. Two years passed but the grief never subsided. I felt like I had lost my strength.
“In 1984 I came to visit my daughter Danuta, who had moved to Australia. And two years later, I was still here. I loved Australia but missed Teresa and my little grandson Dariusz. I remember Christmas Eve 1986, I was making piroshki (polish dumplings) when the phone rang. It was Teresa. She said: ‘You’d better make more Mama, we will be coming for dinner.’ That Christmas brought us promise, for not long after Teresa moved to Sydney. We all had a chance, a new life –memories from our past still clear but the future untainted.”
Poland became a sovereign state in 1989 with the fall of the USSR, however for the remainder of Janina’s life she made Australia home. Her daughter Teresa continues to live in Australia and is a renowned artist, with exhibitions here and overseas. I am fortunate to call these women my family, but mostly they are my friends. Recently losing my Babcia I have learnt that life is fragile but love is eternal. I pray that she will find peace now, and after 31 years apart she may be reunited with her beloved Jerzy.